Biology Seminars for First-Year Students

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BIOG 1250: Biology Seminar

Small groups explore a topic in biology while learning to think like a scientist

Are you interested in catching the excitement of biology by talking with a faculty member and other inquisitive students? If you answered yes, then consider enrolling in a BIOG 1250 Seminar that is facilitated by enthusiastic faculty members who love teaching. Topic based seminars target first-year students with AP credit or a strong interest in research. Seminar enrollment is limited to 20 students, is usually held for two hours over seven weeks, and is awarded 1 credit with an S/U grade only. The seminar goals are outlined below:

  • Increase the opportunity for students to have a meaningful interaction with a biologist
  • Perpetuate excitement in studying biology
  • Develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in the biological sciences (review at least one scientific paper)
  • Increase sense of community by expanding social and academic networks
  • Learn the value of collaborative learning
  • Discuss ethical issues in science

Student evaluations have been very positive: 92% responded that the seminar helped develop critical thinking skills and 99% reported being able to interact comfortably with the professor. Many faculty seminar leaders enjoyed the freedom to use a more inquiry based learning model while giving students the opportunity to choose papers to review and take leadership for helping facilitate discussions.

Student Feedback

Random responses from students who were asked if they would recommend the seminar to other students:

  • "I definitely would. It piqued my interest in marine life. The lecturer was instrumental in doing that."
  • "Yes, it’s a great foundation-builder in biological research skills!"
  • "Yes. This course helped me feel less intimidated by scientific papers, introduced me to a variety of topics, and helped me understand the general format of scientific papers required by different journals."
  • "Yes I would recommend the course, it was very informative and would especially benefit anyone with an interest in botany or pharmaceuticals."
  • "I would definitely recommend this course to others. Not only did it help me understand some medical issues seniors have to face, it also helped me understand the economics of the US healthcare system. This class also exposed me to concepts I have never touched upon and it was interesting."
  • "It was good to study a variety of topics chosen by students who had an interest in them. An awesome idea for a course – combining both discussion of papers and practical laboratory skills."
  • "Yes, but only to those people who are serious about majoring in science and who want to improve their communication skills (i.e., as they present)."
  • "Yes. It’s a great experience in a wide range of areas/skills. I definitely would, it is a great way to learn a bit about microbiology. I really was not thinking about taking microbio but I think I will now."

Seminar Descriptions


Understanding Social Evolution: A Brief Introduction to Investigating Animal Behavior

BIOG 1250; 1 cr., S/U, Thursdays, August 31-October 12;  10:10 AM-12:05 PM

Gavin M. Leighton

Office Hours: 2 – 4 PM on Tuesdays

Central to evolution of life are the behaviors organisms perform so as to acquire fitness and survive in their environment. One critical component of behaviors are social behaviors, and specifically cooperative behaviors that allow groups to flourish. In this course we will explore preliminary topics in evolution and behavior, and then conduct a small-scale experiment on two species of ants.

Students in the course will be exposed to designing experiments in animal behavior, conducting an experiment, and carrying out analysis. This course is intended to introduce you to the method of studying animal behavior, and reporting on results. You will therefore begin to establish important methodological foundations in the biological sciences. The ultimate goal is to show students the scientific method from start to finish on a small scale, so that they may scale this up in research opportunities at Cornell University in the future.

Birds Can Tell Us Things and We Should Listen: An Introduction to Ornithology and Bird Study Techniques

BIOG 1250; 1cr., S/U, Thursdays, August 31-October 12; 1:25-3:20PM


Ron Rohrbaugh Jr.

Unlike most mammals that rely on a keen sense of smell, birds, like humans, use sounds and vivid color vision to survive and communicate with each other. Did you know that the sound frequency range of bird song is nearly identical to the range of human hearing? Birds have a lot to tell us, if we know what questions to ask. By using the principles of scientific inquiry to observe and listen to birds, we learn not only about birds, but about ecology, animal behavior, evolution, physics, and potential environmental threats to our planet. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, including bioacoustics, capture and sampling methods, genetics, citizen science, and conservation biology; this course will teach the fundamentals of ornithology and field techniques for studying birds. The seven, two-hour sessions will combine hands-on field and lab exercises with group discussions about critical thinking and the importance of framing a working scientific question. Bring your boots and binoculars and prepare to have some birding fun!

Disturbance ecology: trophic interactions in a changing climate

BIOG 1250, 1cr., S/U
Next offered:  TBA

Dr. Mark Sarvary

The complexity of interactions among species is fascinating. These interactions are in constant flux as anthropogenic and natural disturbances have dramatic effects on the function and structure of ecosystems and on biodiversity. Just imagine how 17-year cicadas can temporarily interrupt the food web, how the arrival of climate refugees can disturb already established trophic interactions, or how a hydrilla outbreak will affect our own Cayuga Lake. In this seminar course we will discuss how anthropogenic and natural effects reshape ecosystems and change biodiversity. We will talk about natural disturbances such as wildfires, hurricanes and insect outbreaks, as well as anthropogenic disturbances such as increased carbon emissions, forest clearing, and the introduction of exotic species. You will read and analyze scientific papers, discuss hypothesis testing, critique experimental designs, and debate whether anything is constant under a changing climate.

Microscopy and Imagination*

Next offered:  TBA

Barbara Eaglesham

“Animalcules” were first discovered in the 17th century by a cloth merchant who lacked scientific training but made up for it with an abundance of curiosity and a passion for seeing new things. He constructed his own microscopes and used them well into his 70’s. See original publications of his work and others’ at Kroch Library’s Rare Book and Manuscript Collections where we will gather for the first session. Explore some of the more innovative advances in microscopy, learn some history of microscopy and prepare for research in a lab by gaining practical skills in phase contrast and fluorescence microscopy. Explore the small!

*The ability of the mind to think of clever and original ideas, possibilities or solution

Become a Wikipedian: write for Wikipedia and contribute to the World’s understanding of biology

Next offered:  TBA

Kelee Lynn Pacion and Ashley Downs, Mann Library and Dr. Mark Sarvary, Investigative Lab

If you ask a biology related question, where do you go to find the answer? Nearly 500 million people check Wikipedia every month to look for answers, explanations and definitions! The general population might use Wikipedia to make decisions regarding health, informing their personal beliefs, and potentially influence life choices. Did you ever wonder whether that information is accurate? This course is co-taught by Kelee Lynn Pacion and Ashley Downs from Mann library and Mark A. Sarvary from Investigative Biology, to offer you a unique opportunity to enhance your scientific literacy and become an expert in a biology topic of your interest. You will write and edit biology related Wikipedia entries and use Wikipedia as a learning tool to develop stronger critical thinking and information literacy skills. According to Wikipedia, “wikipedians are people who write and edit the pages for Wikipedia.” Would you like to become a wikipedian? If your answer is yes, sign up for this course.

Pathogen detection and surveillance

Next offered:  TBA

Dr. Keith Perry

Pathogen detection is a critically important first step in a disease outbreak and in developing appropriate disease control measures. Surveillance to document genetic, geographic, and temporal changes in the pathogen requires a monitoring network, with detection achieved through the application of specific biochemical and biological assays. In this course, we will focus in detail on a small number of animal and plant diseases currently under global surveillance including but not limited those associated with influenza, salmonella and stem rust of wheat. We will also explore the various biochemical and biological assays used to monitor the pathogen. The class is structured around reading and discussion of selected papers, with the goal of understanding the methodologies and conceptual approaches used to detect and monitor pathogen populations.

Spring Field Ornithology

BIOG 1250, 1 cr., S/U, limited to 11, Wednesdays, 3/14/17 - 5/10/17, 6:30PM-9:30PM


Dr. Jennifer Walsh-Emond

This seminar will introduce students to bird identification and conservation while building familiarity with the research process and the research opportunities available to undergraduates at Cornell. Birds have long served as a focus for both wildlife appreciation and for serious scientific inquiry. The Lab of Ornithology at Cornell is a world leader in ornithology and there are many opportunities for undergraduate involvement in CLO activities. For our seminar, we will piggyback on the Spring Field Ornithology class that is offered to the public. Lectures will focus on bird identification, conservation, and research conducted at the CLO. Our seminar group will also meet separately for a series of discussions dedicated to finding research opportunities, developing research projects, and pursuing a career in biology. Students will have the opportunity to interact in a small group with a working ornithologist and will read and evaluate scientific papers, with a goal of gaining familiarity with all aspects of the research process and developing critical thinking skills.